The National Sustainable Structures Center: Strengthening a Skilled Credentialed Workforce

The National Sustainable Structures Center (NSSC) at Pennsylvania College of Technology (PCT), one of the top building science training centers in the U.S., provides a variety of building science and energy efficiency training and technical assistance in the mid-Atlantic. Through its Workforce Development and Continuing Education unit, PCT manages the state’s largest worker training program.

Recently, NSSC added a groundbreaking chapter to its three-decade success story as the first in the Commonwealth to offer IREC-accredited training in all four of the Home Energy Professional programs: Quality Control Inspector, Retrofit Installer Technician, Crew Leader and Energy Auditor, completing a credentialing sweep that began with endorsement of the Retrofit Installer Technician and Energy Auditor programs in the summer of 2013. They’ve been busy, committed to a skilled and credentialed workforce.

IREC caught up with Alison A. Dillon, assistant director of NSSC to talk about training, credentialing and clean energy workforce development in Pennsylvania. Here’s our conversation.

IREC: In April, NSSC was awarded IREC’s accreditation for its Quality Control Inspector and Crew Leader training programs. Congratulations! I see from your website that effective 7/1, DOE will require that all homes weatherized under its WAP receive a final inspection by a certified QCI. Was this the impetus to go after the IREC credential?

Jack-Heating

NSSC: Although DOE’s Quality Work Plan does focus on the QCI requirement starting July 1, 2015, NSSC decided several years ago to go for IREC accreditation for the entire suite of our Home Energy Professional training programs. We wanted to hit a homerun in credentialing and distinguish our training center as one of the top in the nation to provide residential energy efficiency and building science training. IREC accreditation was a natural step for us to take.

IREC: How was the process? What advice would you give to other organizations considering IREC’s accreditation process?

NSSC: The accreditation process went fairly smoothly for NSSC, but I believe it is because we had the processes and resources in place, and didn’t have to create them just to meet an accreditation checklist. Our parent organization, Pennsylvania College of Technology, had policies and procedures in place that we follow and review annually. As a DOE Legacy Weatherization Training Center (WTC), we had nearly 30 years of experience and seasoned curricula, which only improved during ARRA and as we went through the accreditation process.

Also, we received very helpful recommendations and support from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) team and from other WTCs that went through the IREC accreditation process earlier. Having a copy of the IREC Standard and the Candidate Handbook also made it easy to focus our application efforts. The most important thing we do is practicing what we preach. This is very important during the site visit when the auditor double (and triple) checks that reality matches what is on paper.

For other training organizations that are gearing up for the accreditation process, it’s important to develop and implement a culture of quality and improvement. Policies and procedures are a formality and are necessary to build organizational structure, but the key is to really build a team and an organization that lives and breathes continuous improvement and customer service.

IREC: The culture of continuous improvement and exemplary customer service benefits everyone, irrespective of the product or service. I’m always curious to know how people get into this kind of work. Looks like you both have extensive training backgrounds. Were your parents either teachers or builders? 

NSSC: John Manz, NSSC’s director, always jokes that he can’t hold a job. Over the last 40 years, John has worked at numerous (5+) technical colleges and high schools as an instructor in the fields of vocational and HVAC technology, weatherization, and building science and construction. He also started and owned two highly successful HVAC companies. His technical aptitude and work ethic are tied directly to growing up on a farm and learning life lessons on problem-solving and interacting with nature and science. John often teaches in parables, telling stories that may seem to go off on a “rabbit trail,” but always are brought back to relate to whatever he is teaching.

I grew up in the woods of Pennsylvania, spending a lot of time watching and helping my parents build several houses that were designed to be energy efficient. Early in my career, I recognized that I wanted to do something to make a positive impact on people’s lives and also the environment. My first job in Washington D.C. working as a training specialist was a great opportunity to step into the world of higher education. On the side, I volunteered for a green building non-profit. After several years in the big city, I returned to the mountains to work at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and NSSC, which has proven an excellent match with my personal ideals and training administration background.

IREC: Indeed it is! Let’s talk about the students: who are they? What brings them to NSSC?

Checking dense pack

NSSC: Weatherization is a traditionally male-dominated field, and our demographics are no exception. Most of our workers are male (95% or more). The backgrounds are mainly comprised of (1) experienced/older construction or HVAC contractors; and (2) younger workers who are entering the weatherization field and are just getting introduced to concept of building science and house-as-a-system thinking. Most of the students’ learning preference is tactile – they enjoy the hands-on application of training in our lab or in the field more than sitting in a classroom.

As a woman in the building science field, I see great opportunities for more women to get involved and develop a strong technical skillset in building science. All of us need to continue encouraging young women, especially those in high school, that learning and specializing in a trade related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is one of the most valuable steps they can take to developing a meaningful, stable career.

IREC: Maybe it’s because we’re in this work, but I see articles, conferences, references to STEM everywhere! It’s cool, says this recovering English major! Looks like there’s a ‘green major’ in HVAC Design Tech with both a BS and an AAS. Can you talk about that?

NSSC: The Penn College HVAC program area provides hands-on knowledge of all aspects of the HVAC industry and has an exceptional job placement rate of 95%. Both the associate and the bachelor’s degree are popular with industry partners, who specifically request the college’s HVAC program graduates for new hires. Penn College’s HVAC program area is one of only two bachelor’s degree programs in the U.S. geared toward HVAC. Fuel conservation and alternatives, along with control design, are strongly supported to meet the quest for reduction of the carbon footprint.

Within the associate degree, students learn the technical skills and operational characteristics needed to maintain, install and troubleshoot a plethora of systems designed to provide comfort, preservation and air quality control.  Primary to all operable systems is the ability to conserve energy with optimal service.  Students use up-to-date equipment and selected control strategies to hone skills and be cognizant of the latest developments in what the industry has to offer. There is a large focus on hands on application, with three hours of hands on lab application for every hour in class.

The B.S degree in HVAC design takes the technician to the next step. The philosophy of understanding the intimate working system for proper design creation is the basis of the B.S. degree. Students must successfully complete the major coursework comprised of all the HVAC associate degree courses before developing their design skills. The design courses provide necessary information and practice to investigate, evaluate, calculate and design anything from an ice hockey rink to a sea-worthy vessel that would provide its own comfort cooling, desalination operation and humidity control.

Diagnostics

IREC: Sounds comprehensive and thorough. NSCC students should be confident they’re getting relevant, quality training for today’s workforce. Are NSSC graduates finding work after training?

NSSC: The majority of the students who participate in and complete our training programs are already employed in the home energy upgrade field and were seeking training to earn or maintain a professional certification. Some graduates are looking to enter the field. Many have been hired as subcontractors to weatherization agencies, while others are taking this training to be ready when the market will start investing in home energy upgrades.

IREC: What’s been the biggest challenge(s) in your work?

NSSC: Simple: resistance to change. We can’t keep doing everything the way we’ve always done it. Practice doesn’t make perfect – practice makes permanent! We need to ensure our workers and training programs keep up with the pace of technology. We must streamline our processes and seek new business and leverage opportunities to utilize our highly trained and skilled workers.

IREC: Industry needs a skilled, quality trained workforce. That’s why it’s vital for industry and trainers to collaborate. Do you work closely with industry?

NSSC: We regularly send our instructors to industry events (training and conferences) to make sure they are in the loop on technical standards and upcoming clean energy technologies.

IREC: What’s surprised you the most about this work?

NSSC: We are surprised our 1999 GMC minivan is still running after all the miles put on during and after ARRA!

IREC: Maybe time for an EV? What’s next in the queue?

NSSC: Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) workers are arguably some of the most well-trained and skilled professionals in the residential energy upgrade space. I see a great opportunity for more residential energy conservation programs to utilize Home Energy Professional certification. We’re also offering training for workers and clients on renewable energy systems like solar and geothermal.

IREC: With jaw dropping, enviable growth in both the solar and wind sectors over the past few years (and with no sign of abating), building a highly qualified, well-trained workforce looms large.

NSSC: We want to enable our students so that they can be extraordinary. Energy utilities, companies and homeowners that seek competent and skilled energy professionals can know that the graduates from NSSC’s Home Energy Professional training programs have received the gold standard in building science education and have demonstrated their ability to successfully diagnose and improve a home’s comfort and energy efficiency.

Images: NSSC

 

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